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Originally published Sunday, February 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Dance

Proud Harlem ballet founder fights to keep troupe's legacy alive

When Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell sweeps into a room, the space immediately becomes his stage. "Let's put it this way...

Seattle Times staff reporter

When Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell sweeps into a room, the space immediately becomes his stage.

"Let's put it this way — the limelight loves me," the 70-year-old dance legend said during lunch in Seattle recently.

With his regal bearing, precise diction and a perfect salting of gray along his hairline, Mitchell is that rare man for whom the term "debonair" seems insufficient.

In 1955, Mitchell became the first black male hired as a permanent member of a major ballet company, the New York City Ballet.

The glory of that historic achievement — reached at a time when blacks were thought to lack the capability or even the physical shape to achieve classic dance lines — still drives the Harlem native.

Mitchell's voice grows triumphant when he speaks of being a household name in Russia and an inspiration to dancers from South Africa to China.

Tough times

But in a humbling turn of events late last year, the ballet troupe and school he founded 36 years ago faced a $2.4 million budget shortfall that threatened his legacy. This season's touring schedule was put on hold. The school, which has produced hundreds of budding ballet talents, temporarily closed for the first time.

Mitchell was in Seattle to attend a benefit reception in his honor organized by the Seattle Theatre Group and the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas. It was one of several fund-raisers he planned to attend in cities where the company has performed, in hopes of raising the money to resume touring next season.

"We are going to ensure this legacy, so that Dance Theatre of Harlem will never, ever find itself in the same position it was in several months ago," Mitchell said of his institution, which he describes as a "miracle on 152nd Street."

The problems at the Dance Theatre stem from a combination of factors.

Like many arts organizations large and small, the company's $11 million annual budget relies almost entirely on revenues from performances, government grants and individual contributions. The financial needs can be doubly complicated for ethnically oriented arts groups.

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"People need to know that what (black arts groups) do affects the whole community, not just the black community," said Stephanie Ellis-Smith, founder and executive director of the CD Forum. "From my perspective, this community needs to have internationally renowned black arts organizations touring here."

Mitchell said the troupe and school, started with $25,000 of his own savings in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., has never had a major benefactor. And it lacks an endowment or substantial reserve account to push it through lean times.

He also acknowledged that as the strong-willed founding artistic director, his vision for the Dance Theatre had clashed with that of some board members.

It also became clear that the company needed someone dedicated solely to business operations. In previous years, Mitchell assumed control over affairs on stage as well as in the front office, which left him little time to work with young dancers in the school, something he said he regrets.

Last year, the Dance Theatre hired one of Mitchell's ballet protégés, South African-born Laveen Naidu, as the new executive director.

"Before, I was doing it all, and something had to suffer," said Mitchell, who added that the Kennedy Center's Michael Kaiser is advising the Dance Theatre on its turnaround. "Now I have someone who understands the mission — who I trust."

Naidu will serve as the right-hand man to "Mr. Mitchell," who continues to serve as the Dance Theatre's big thinker, a position as suited for him as the pas de deux his mentor George Balanchine choreographed for him in "Agon," in which he was controversially paired with a white woman dance partner.

Mitchell, born in March, 1934, is a typical Aries, charm oozing from every inch of him, right down to the cream-colored jade ring he wears on his left pinkie. He's using that magnetism, as well as his own life story, to promote the Dance Theatre.

Mitchell said he lived through riots in Harlem in the 1940s, and after King was killed in 1968, he decided he needed to do his part to create alternatives for the younger generation of African Americans. They could vent their anger and frustration over poverty and racism through rigorous dance training, not on each other, Mitchell thought.

Establishing a dance company was the pretext for an even greater cause — social equality. Today, the troupe recruits people from all backgrounds.

"I tell my dancers, don't be classical — that's an affectation," Mitchell added. "Be classic, because that essence is the elegance that is inherent to a man whether he's a courtier in Louis XIV's court or a Watusi warrior."

Battling for identity

When Mitchell repeats another of his several mottos, "I am a man who happens to be black, not a black man," he does so with the conviction of a man still struggling to define himself against the odds and stereotypes he tried to shield his students from.

He recalled performing with Pearl Bailey in the musical "House of Flowers" some 50 years ago. She once directed him to forget the spectators in the expensive floor seats and ponder the people sitting in the balcony: "Now if you can win over the people up there," Bailey told him, "they'll be with you for the rest of your life."

Today, Mitchell must win over both crowds to steady his dance company's footing.

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com

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